Brett Anderson Talks Life Since The Donnas, Scoring Commercials, And Shooting TV Pilots That Never Aired
Welcome to the latest installment of “Tracking Down,” a new Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
The Donnas’ greatest song, “Get Rid Of That Girl” was released two decades ago, and it’s still charming as ever in its ramshackle garage-pop way. In under two minutes these expert Ramone clones figure out how they’re gonna dispatch a “fine” boy’s girlfriend (“I’m gonna drag her by the hair all over town”) and sum up one teenage jealousy dilemma in its most compact form: “Her hair’s so blonde and her nails so long / So I put my Maybellines record on.” The whole thing is perfect brat-pop down to the off-beat “kill kill kill” backing vocals and endearingly DIY cardboard-robot video.
But they definitely advanced from there, as 1999’s Get Skintight amped up the songcraft and originality more than a bit, finding the quartet at a crossroads of Brill Building (“You Don’t Wanna Call”), hopped-up post-Runaways glam (“Hook It Up”) and hair metal (literally Mötley Crue’s “Too Fast For Love”). The Donnas Turn 21 in 2001 jacked up the AC/DC quotient and the tunes increasingly left behind headlong pop-punk for arena-rock nuggets with guitar solos, which culminated in a major-label debut, Spend The Night and an actual MTV hit, “Take It Off,” the next year. By now, as one of their best early songs put it, the Donnas were unquestionably a “Rock ‘N’ Roll Machine.”
It’s been 10 years since the last Donnas album, the Jett-black Aquanet tribute Bitchin’, and Stereogum caught up with singer Brett Anderson (aka Donna A.) about what she and her bandmates have been doing over the last decade, and how they headed off the social-media boom at the pass.
STEREOGUM: Sorry if my voice, like, randomly creaks. I started getting sick yesterday.
ANDERSON: Oh no! Well, I’m the last person who would ever judge anyone on their voice. I’ve had a nodule since I was six years old. Of course, I ended up in a career that depended completely on the most defective part of my body.
STEREOGUM: Did it ever actually hinder you singing?
ANDERSON: It constantly hindered my singing! In all our reviews it was like, “Her nicotine-tinged voice…” and I was like, ‘No, I don’t smoke, I just have a fucked-up voice.’ [Laughs.] I had to do rock ‘n’ roll. There’s no way I was gonna be any kind of singer.
STEREOGUM: How long have the Donnas been inactive? Was it a formal hiatus?
ANDERSON: I think our last show was in 2012. And no, we just started playing fewer shows and people started doing other stuff gradually, and after a while it was like… hmm, we haven’t played a show in a long time.
STEREOGUM: I know you’re studying psychology now.
ANDERSON: I just saw Torry [Castellano, drummer], she just moved to Israel to do some kind of fellowship. She also went to Stanford, and then to Harvard. I think she had not taken the bar yet…I think she’s doing this fellowship before she takes the bar. I’m inspired by her path; I came to Stanford after her. Our band has a 100% yield rate so that would look good on my application. “If you admit us, we come! So that would look good for your numbers!”
It really wasn’t a conscious decision, just a confluence of many, many cultural and economic and political factors combining, which just made it harder and harder to be a working musician. When we started, it was like, you could put songs on the radio, you could have videos on MTV, and we did all those things and it was super exciting. And then Napster happened, and in a way it was really cool because it evened the playing field so that other people could get exposure, and you didn’t need, like, a record label to get your song on the radio. But it didn’t technically turn out like that.
The reality is that there’s alliances between media conglomerates, so I don’t think that happened quite as much as it could or should have. And it made selling our music — making money off the thing that we make — impossible, so our sales went down. So we had to start trying to earn money in all these peripheral ways, like selling merchandise or the experience of a live show: all just much more difficult, more labor-intensive ways to make money than on the thing you create.
STEREOGUM: Nothing sucks more than having an artist you like who can’t afford to create.
ANDERSON: Yeah, it’s frustrating. And then social media and that component started becoming really central to being successful, so you have to constantly provide content…I don’t want to speak for the other people in my band but I think none of us want to put our whole lives out there, I think we all value privacy. And it just seemed very against my nature to have to be constantly updating all that shit.
STEREOGUM: Your first album turned 20 this year, how does it feel to look back on two decades of being a successful band?
ANDERSON: It’s surreal, I kind of don’t believe it in a way. We were like 13 when we started, and you never think it’s going to turn into anything real, and then when we signed to Lookout! it was like, oh my god, we’re on a record label! And then when we signed to Atlantic it was like, holy shit, this is real! I still feel as surprised about that as the day it happened. So now the fact it’s like history is surreal.
STEREOGUM: What was your major-label experience like?
ANDERSON: I think Atlantic is a great label. Obviously they have a great history in rock ‘n’ roll: Zeppelin, AC/DC. The problem is, when we signed, we had a great team that we got to know, and we chose to work with that label because of those people and the amount of control we were offered versus the advance. And then all those people left and a whole new group of people came in and we’re like, “Who are you guys?” And they’re like “Who are you?”
STEREOGUM: I get why creative control was so important to the Donnas; I can only try and imagine some of the things men would try to impose on you guys.
ANDERSON: [Laughs.] We made a couple pilots for reality shows where we were like, [whispers] “OK, we’re just gonna make this pilot so we seem willing, but we’re not gonna do it, right? We’re gonna bail out, right?” One of them we’re like, looking for Halloween costumes at this Halloween store. I don’t know if you have to do this but every once in a while in your career you have to do something really degrading. Doing a reality show is like the most degrading thing I can imagine.
There was one really cool one we did, by the guys who did [the animated show] Dr. Katz, and they just taped us talking for a couple hours and were able to have enough material to splice it together. There were songs and psychedelic stuff and rabbits, and it was funny, plus, best of all, I wouldn’t have to be in it.
STEREOGUM: I think a lot of writers hate doing things like “The Top 10 Miley Cyrus Songs” or something, but I love them, they’re like brain exercises for me and they give me an excuse to do a deep dive on an artist I hardly know sometimes.
ANDERSON: That’s how I feel about making music for commercials, which I did for a few years toward the end of the band. [For example, Anderson provided music for Fitbit’s “It’s All Fit” clip. See below. –ed.] I think a lot of people would feel degraded by that, but for me it felt exactly like a brain exercise. Like, “OK, we have these constraints, we have to do this and this and this in that much time, and have to match with this picture.” It’s like a little puzzle.
STEREOGUM: Liz Phair is, like, an award-winning scorer of soap operas on daytime TV now.
ANDERSON: Wow! I would love to spend a whole day with her doing that. I love scores. The new music I’ve made in the last couple years has been really inspired by the scores Nick Cave and Warren Ellis did, like the Assassination Of Jesse James soundtrack, and the music from Twin Peaks and Angelo Badalamenti. Music really is the score for your life. You put on the Donnas and you’re gonna feel empowered and excited and hopefully not feel like things are as heavy as they are. Like day’s over, we’re gonna have fun. But I also like the idea of putting something on and making your day seem more intense or dramatic.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever struggle with trying to bring in musical ideas that didn’t fit the image the Donnas had been cultivating?
ANDERSON: I think part of what kept the band going for so long is that our sound did change a lot. When you look at each record, there is a different thing we’re doing on each record: “Take It Off” is more straightforward and high-energy, and Gold Medal, we just explored more organic sounds with that record, which was really fulfilling and exciting for all of us. And then we went more metal after that. It was exciting seeing what we could get away with, within the constraints of our identity, that wouldn’t seem inauthentic. “Could I play piano on a song?”
STEREOGUM: Re-listening to all the records within the last few days, I could see the amount of guitar soloing goes up over time.
ANDERSON: [Allison Robertson, guitarist] is so good! It was so fun being in a band where, during a solo, I could just turn onstage and be the audience, too.
STEREOGUM: How intentional was it, politically, that the Donnas’ songwriting perspective seemed to try to even the score by objectifying men?
ANDERSON: Yay, you got it! [Laughs.] I can’t tell you how many fucking morning interview shows we’d go to on the radio and they’d be like, [affects dudebro voice] “Sooo, when are you gonna take it off?” And we’d be like, “Can you speak your own fucking language? That is an imperative statement, from us, to other people!”
It wasn’t like we sat down and strategized intentionally, it just permeated our every conversation, just being an all-female band in a very male-dominated genre and industry. The bands that we loved and were emulating, their lyrics tended to be about objectifying. So what are your options? Either take on that persona and give back what they’re giving, or are you gonna try and be like, the female in that scenario? I just can’t even imagine why anyone would want to do that or how you’d even pull it off.
STEREOGUM: But it still backfired with, say, morning show radio hosts, too?
ANDERSON: That’s just ’cause people are sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo stupidddddddddddddd.
When we go to Europe on tour or Australia or Japan, even people for whom English is their second language, get it because they’re actually listening to the lyrics and value musicians as a valuable member of society. When you’re in Europe on tour with your band, they treat you like a doctor or lawyer, the backstage room is decked out when you get to a club, and it may not be the nicest club in the world but they give you all they have because they really value having music and art in their culture. I just don’t think people here, as a whole… it’s just more commercial here.
STEREOGUM: Did fans often tell you that the Donnas empowered them?
ANDERSON: Not explicitly making statements but I feel like we led with our actions more than our words, and I feel that was really motivating for people who’d never seen a female band onstage playing rock ‘n’ roll, both girls and boys! “I saw you guys play and I never felt that was something I could do.”
STEREOGUM: On a technical, personal level, if I try to play the “Take It Off” riff, there’s like a first-to-fourth finger stretch that I physically cannot do, like my hands are too small for it.
ANDERSON: Sometimes we would dumb down the lyrics a little bit, we didn’t want to be too highbrow but more fun and accessible. But musically, we’re all big nerds across the board who’d get down to the details of all the people that we love.
STEREOGUM: Is there a record you’re particularly proud of that you consider your artistic peak?
ANDERSON: I don’t know about everybody, but Gold Medal was really fulfilling. We met PJ Harvey the week we released that record, and it felt like an omen, like we were getting good feedback from the universe at that point in time. I grew up playing piano and I would love to have something to play and hide behind once in a while.
STEREOGUM: I love the emphasis on harmonies on that record, and these almost psychedelic elements. But Get Skintight is probably my favorite.
ANDERSON: Yeah, and it’s probably the one that’s…most like the Donnas, in a way.
STEREOGUM: After Bitchin’, did you guys continue to write songs and just not want to put something out?
ANDERSON: No, we wrote a bunch more songs and recorded some, but I think it just dissipated. We do have a bunch more songs that I think are really awesome.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any plans to do anything with those in the future?
ANDERSON: Not particularly; for me, I’m just struggling to keep up with the minimum I have to do in this one thing I’m doing, so I can’t even imagine trying to keep up with something else.
STEREOGUM: What’s the biggest misconception about the band?
ANDERSON: People constantly thought we didn’t write our own songs or play our instruments. There were literally rumors that there was a guy behind the stage playing the solos. Right now, I’m surrounded by 18 and 19-year-olds all the time, and some are familiar with the band and some aren’t. If they are, it’s usually through Rock Band or Guitar Hero. I don’t feel like we were really misunderstood, but I guess I’m not sure if people were aware of how much we cared about the songwriting.
STEREOGUM: Have you guys gotten big offers to reunite for festivals or things you’ve had to turn down?
ANDERSON: Things come in and they keep coming in. There are good offers that come in but some are like…really ambitious without anything to back them up. We had to really sacrifice a lot of our lives in order to do this band. We had to put everything aside, we had to put school aside, our families for a lot of it. No one really guilt-tripped me, but I felt guilty anyway. Now it’s just super nice that now when someone’s got something coming up, I can commit to being there, which is something I was never, ever able to do before.